Front-line workers hope for COVID-19 plateau relief with some Michigan hospitals at capacity

COVID-19 patients pushed some Michigan hospitals to 100% capacity amid signs surge is…

Front-line workers hope for COVID-19 plateau relief with some Michigan hospitals at capacity 1

Lansing — The rhythm of beeps from monitors broke the silence on Floor 9-West of Sparrow Hospital late Wednesday afternoon as nine nurses quietly cared for the unit’s 30 coronavirus patients inside their rooms.

“This is 9-West’s third surge,” said Amelia Conklin, a floor manager at the Lansing-area hospital. “We had our first surge in that March/April of 2020 and the second surge around December — and here we are in No. 3.

“The staff are struggling. It’s just exhaustion. You’re going into that room wearing all that protective equipment, and you literally come out drenched in sweat.”

But even as COVID-19 patients pushed some Michigan hospitals to 100% capacity on Wednesday, some hospital officials are starting to express hope Michigan’s latest surge is headed for a plateau as workers push through their fatigue. 

At Sparrow, the hospital’s 390 adult beds were filled on Wednesday, and it was using overflow space to accommodate new patients, spokesman John Foren said. 

“The (COVID in-patient) numbers have gone down slightly the last few days,” Foren said. “It seems like we hit a peak about a week ago. So it seems that we’ve made some progress.”

Beaumont Farmington Hills Hospital, St. Joseph Mercy Livingston and Ascension St. Joseph Hospital in Tawas also were listed at 100% capacity on the Michigan Health and Hospital Association website, which was last updated on Monday. Information listed on the site is based on data from the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services.

St. Joseph Mercy in Ann Arbor and Hurley Medical Center in Flint were at 99% as of Monday, and Henry Ford Macomb in Clinton Township and the Detroit Medical Center’s Harper and Hutzel hospitals in Detroit were listed at 98% full.

Inside 9-West, Conklin said the nurses spent most of the time in their patients’ rooms on Wednesday, a typical practice.

“You’re not seeing much in the hallways right now, and that isn’t surprising,” Conklin said. “When you go into a room, you’re usually in there for a good 30 minutes. 

“You’re trying to bundle services as much as possible, so you’re not going in and out the room; you’re not wasting PPE.” 

Many of the nurses here have been treating COVID-19 patients for more than a year and are exhausted, she said. 

For Danna Spadoske, who graduated from nursing school last spring just as the pandemic started, this is her first job. Her entire career has been working in a pandemic.

“I think what everyone’s waiting for is for it to be over, just to get through it,” Spadoske said.  

COVID-19 trends

Michigan on Wednesday surpassed 800,000 COVID-19 cases and more than 17,000 deaths. The state has led the nation in new infections and hospitalizations for two weeks, and infections have been on the rise for eight consecutive weeks.

But the statewide number of people hospitalized with COVID-19 seems to have crested since Michigan set a new record on Monday of 4,158 people hospitalized, breaking the record of 4,011 set on April 13. 

As of Wednesday, 3,914 people were hospitalized with COVID-19 in Michigan, with 871 are in the intensive care unit and 530 being on ventilators. Hospitalizations are up 131% from one month ago when there were 1,659 hospitalizations.

Patients in the ICUs have increased 14% from last week and are now exceeding the winter peak, according to the state’s data.

Southwest Michigan, Grand Rapids and the Upper Peninsula are experiencing the fastest growth in COVID-19 cases.

The center of Michigan, Eaton and Jackson counties, along with the southeast and southwest regions are reporting 95% overall ICU occupancy.

Statewide COVID-19 hospitalizations also are 15% higher than the winter wave, even though Michigan ranks ninth nationally for the largest vaccine distribution. A little more than 32% of the state’s adults 16 years and older had been fully vaccinated through Wednesday, according to the state health department’s website, less than half of the way to Gov. Gretchen Whitmer’s goal of vaccinating 70% of adults as soon as the Fourth of July.

In comparison, Michigan’s surrounding states of Wisconsin, Illinois, and Ohio are also seeing increases in hospitalizations while Indiana’s hospitalizations are stable.

Whitmer has attributed the rise in cases to the spread of variants, noncompliance by some residents with following masking and other protocols, and not yet getting enough residents vaccinated.

Michigan has the second-highest number of cases of the highly contagious United Kingdom variant B.1.1.7 with 4,728 cases in 80 jurisdictions. 

Scenes from a COVID unit

Floor 9-West is supposed to be staffed by 10 nurses at a time, but only nine were available for this shift on Wednesday, said Krysten Grabiel, a registered nurse on the unit. 

“Some people are working 16 hours (instead of 12),” Grabiel said. “That’s a lot.”

Health systems statewide have been shuffling patients between hospitals or converting underutilized space to COVID-19 units. At Sparrow, 9-West used to be the neurology unit.    

“We’ve got plenty of overflow beds set aside,” said Foren, noting there is space at Sparrow’s hospitals in St. Johns, Charlotte and Ionia.

“We still have a lot of space and a lot of opportunities available, and we also have our community hospitals,” he said.

For Michigan hospitals, the biggest concern isn’t running out of beds, said John Karasinski, spokesman for the Michigan Health and Hospital Association. It is running out of staff. 

“When it comes to adding beds, we often hear from our members that adding physical beds is not a challenge. It’s adding staff for those beds that’s the challenge,” Karasinski said. 

Health care workers are needed to staff vaccination clinics or infusion clinics to treat COVID-19 patients with monoclonal antibodies, Karasinski noted. So hospitals are coming up with ways to staff the clinics without tapping into the workforce needed to care for COVID-19 inpatients, he said.

The patients being treated now are younger than those who were hospitalized during previous surges, but they are just as sick, nurses Grabiel and Spadoske said.  Many of them are hospitalized for weeks, if not longer. 

“It does appear that we’re starting to see a plateauing of the current surge,” Karasinski said. “That still doesn’t change the fact that our hospitals are going to have high inpatient numbers for some time.”

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